I suppose everybody who’s hooked on bluegrass is by definition hooked on banjo. Some people say, with good reason, that Bill Monroe “invented” bluegrass. But without those Earl Scruggs banjo rolls to drive the music, that invention would be hollow. Without the banjo, bluegrass would not sound anything close to what we think of today as bona fide bluegrass music.
There aren’t very many people in the world who can say they have invented a style of banjo picking. Earl Scruggs is sometimes credited with inventing the three finger bluegrass style but a bunch of other people like Snuffy Jenkins, Smith Hammet and Fischer Hendley were playing three finger banjo around the same time. Scruggs absorbed those influences and synthesized them into the bluegrass banjo style that every bluegrass banjoist since has used as their foundation. Bill Keith took that knowledge into a melodic style that people give him credit for as a distinct style. Don Reno had his style. Ralph Stanley played his own way. To a real banjo fan there are a number of distinct innovations worthy of merit. There’s even a style that incorporates four fingers into the banjo roll.
Few of you in the CBA may be aware of the fact that one of your very own California blue grassers has developed his very own distinct banjo style. By coincidence also, very few of you know that your intrepid welcome columnist, Bert Daniel even plays the banjo. But (all modesty aside) I am in fact the developer of a distinct style. It’s called the three thumb style and I have the documentation to claim proper credit for my invention. The unflattering image you see is evidence of my brief notoriety in the banjo world. (Rick Cornish caught me on his cell phone coming out of the rest room after some beer recycling at Grass Valley because he needed a photo for all welcome column authors).
Ten summers ago at Grass Valley, I was just beginning to get hooked on the banjo. I brought my instrument to the festival and I even took a claw hammer workshop with Carl Pagter, who passed away recently. At some point before the festival I had mentioned to Rick Cornish that I was trying to learn the banjo and was all thumbs at it. Rick has an entrepreneurial side to him and if you bought a tee shirt at that year’s festival you’ll see a logo with a banjo at the center with a blank space just the right size for a campaign button. To support the CBA web site, you could buy a button for a nominal price with your favorite banjo player on it. Somehow or another, one of the options on the campaign button for banjo maestro was Bert “three thumbs” Daniel, (yours truly). When I found out that I had been honored with my own banjo button alongside such luminaries as Earl Scruggs, J.D Crowe, Keith Little, Larry Cohea, etc. I could not believe it. I decided right then and there that I must remove this anomaly from the market place because if I don’t buy that button nobody else will.
I wore my button at that night’s jam and I guess I must have bragged about it a little bit. Not only was I proud of being a banjo star collector’s item (no doubt short lived), I was proud of the fact hat I had plunked down my money for the CBA and relieved it of an orphan campaign button that would obviously never sell to anyone but me.
Then on the last day of the festival one of my friends showed up wearing their very own Three Thumbs button. Turns out button sales automatically generated new printings in order to keep up with demand. My purchase had stimulated a collector’s market.
So now I have solid proof that I am the true originator of the three thumb banjo style. Any of you out there who happen to have one of those three thumb buttons from the 2013 Father’s Day Festival, hang onto it. That button is sure to be worth a lot of money some day. And any of you folks who want to learn my three thumb style, I’ll be glad to give you lessons. Once I figure this stuff out, that is.